AT&T is officially courting cord-cutters. The telecom giant on Wednesday released DirecTV Now, a new streaming service that lets you watch a selection of live TV channels over the internet for a monthly fee.
If that sounds like other internet TV services such as Dish’s Sling TV or Sony’s PlayStation Vue, that’s because it is! At its core, DirecTV Now does the same thing as any other so-called “skinny bundle” — it’s something for people who want to quit cable, but can’t go whole hog.
This is by no means a groundbreaking product, and as it stands now, it isn’t likely to finish cable off. That isn’t really AT&T’s goal anyway. However, if you find yourself missing the comforting background buzz of live TV, there’s enough here to at least be worth a look.
And if you pay AT&T for phone service, there’s one big, hugely controversial advantage to consider.
We were able to test DirecTV Now on an Apple TV for a couple of days prior to launch. While that’s too little time for a final verdict, here are some quick impressions on what AT&T has to offer.
It works, mostly.
As in, programs stream with little issue, and the app works quickly enough. Anecdotally, swiping through channels isn’t as fast as it is with PlayStation Vue, but it’s not slow. It’s better than what we’ve experienced with Sling TV.
But there’ve been technical issues.
The touted “72-hour lookback” feature — which lets you watch the last three days of programs for certain channels — worked at an onsite demo, but not outside of that. The main menu was prone to sluggishness while scrolling. And sometimes, certain networks just wouldn’t load.
An AT&T rep pinned bugs like these on the final preparations being made before the service went live en masse. That would make sense. But again, we haven’t spent too long with the service, and it remains to be seen how well it will hold up under a full load. We’ll update if things get better or worse.
Navigating the app isn’t too hard, but could be faster.
The whole thing looks clean, with big, hard-to-miss icons that are given plenty of space. As with Vue, the channel guide is structured a lot like what you’d find with a cable package, but it’s pleasant, and it lets you only scroll through your favourite channels if desired.
Speaking of, you can mark those favourite networks in the guide, then see quickly see what they’re airing in a “What’s On Now” row in the main menu — not the most obvious process, but mostly convenient.
It’s a similar story with favourite shows and movies: You have to go out of your way to search for them — or find them in the “Shows” or “Networks” tabs — but once you do, you can add them to a “Watchlist,” which lets you view whatever episodes are available for a given show on demand. (Though it doesn’t seem to tell you when those shows will air live, which is an oversight.)
That there’s a tab dedicated solely to scrolling through networks seems redundant, though; you could theoretically do all the same things just through the channel guide.
There are show suggestions, and they’re fine.
Within the main menu you’ll see several rows of content recommendations: “Comic Relief” serves up shows like Saturday Night Live and Tosh.0, “So Dramatic” has popular dramas like Empire and Lethal Weapon, “HBO” has, well, HBO shows, and so on. Movies are similarly separated by genre.
These tend to highlight already popular shows first, but generally speaking they do well to break up the content AT&T has into more discoverable chunks. And if you don’t need them, they’re easy to ignore.
Search is just ok.
Again, generally speaking, if you look for a show the service covers, DirecTV Now will find it, and show upcoming episodes in the order they’re set to air. It wasn’t flawless, though, and there’s no way to search by specific actor.
Most of the major channels are there, but there’s no CBS, Showtime, or NFL Sunday Ticket, and local network support will vary by market.
HBO and Cinemax, meanwhile, are available as $5 add-ons, though that’s cheaper than the $10-15 they usually cost elsewhere.
While AT&T says it’s working on getting CBS on board, that’s a notable loss compared to PlayStation Vue today. That said, Vue lacks Viacom networks like Comedy Central and Spike. Right now, no one service has it all. You simply have to pick and pay for the bundle that covers the most for you.
The more expensive bundles probably won’t add much value.
It’s much like normal DirecTV’s offerings; going up in price mainly adds nichier channels and hardcore sports networks (MLB Network, NBCSN, ESPNU, NBA TV, etc.). For most, the $35 entry-level bundle should be the best deal. That’s good!
It’s difficult to tell what does or doesn’t support on-demand playback.
When the “72-hour lookback” works, it’s like a beefed up take on channel surfing. You can go to a channel you like, but you aren’t beholden to what’s playing in the moment.
But not every network supports it. Beyond that, not every program on a given network is onboard. (Which means they also can’t go on the Watchlist.) More consistency would reduce the learning curve, though an AT&T rep noted that it will take the company a few more days to get all its on-demand content on board.
Related: There’s no cloud DVR.
You can’t record your own on-demand content, and you can’t rewind live TV. (Though you can pause.) Again, AT&T says it’s working on this for the future, but today it’s DirecTV Now’s biggest technical disadvantage next to PlayStation Vue. Sling TV will soon introduce the feature.
Most of the significant streaming platforms (and the Web) are supported, with the notable exception of Roku boxes and TVs.
AT&T says that’s coming in two to four weeks.
You can only stream DirecTV Now from two devices concurrently.
This is not a whole family solution, because AT&T doesn’t want to cannibalise its existing pay-TV business. PlayStation Vue lets you stream from five devices at once.
There’s no 4K support yet.
A 1080p resolution is still plenty for most, but it’s worth noting.
The mobile app is good.
It mirrored the TV experience closely, and made it easy to switch through channels. We liked it better than Sling’s app, in which things feel a little too large and clunky.
Just note that you won’t be able to stream NFL games on your phone, since the league has an exclusive deal with Verizon. Which brings us to …
Zero rating is a genuine selling point, for better or worse.
If you use AT&T for phone service, you can stream DirecTV Now over mobile data for free. If you want to watch live TV on the bus, this is a godsend.
Ultimately, DirecTV Now doesn’t feel like a cable killer so much as a cable overhaul that is designed with the internet in mind.
You’re still watching commercials. Live and on-demand content still feel like they’re in separate silos, with live taking precedence. You’re still paying for channels you’ll probably never watch; you’re just getting a little less, for a little less money.
DirecTV Now’s interface has some convolutions to work out, the lack of DVR hurts, and we’ll have to keep watching to see if the service holds up technically. PlayStation Vue, which starts at $40 per month ($55 with HBO), is a more fully-realised product today, even as it faces the same existential problems.
But both Vue and Sling TV have had the advantage of time. They have gotten better, and we’d expect DirecTV Now to do the same. For a little bit cheaper, though, the makings of a good value are already there for those who can’t quit the cord completely.
NOW WATCH: The ‘Apple of China’ just unveiled a phone that’s more powerful and better looking than the iPhone
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.